Be Free or Die: Voting Rights & African American Suffragettes

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Photo Credit: Focus Pictures

This year, we celebrate 100 years of suffrage in America. On June 4, 1919, women received the right to vote via the 19th Amendment.

This month, we also celebrated the 170th anniversary of Harriett Tubman liberating herself from the chains of slavery – which enabled her to bravely return multiple times to the South to free so many others. Her story will be brought to the big screen this November, bringing historic context of the fight for liberation and equality to the masses. 

As we celebrate, we also must recognize that the freedom given by the 19th Amendment was not for all women — African American women were left out of the equation. While this has been a long road, we are not yet at the finish line. Women still face barriers to voting — and it is even felt more acutely in communities of color. 

Let’s look back in history through the eyes of African American suffragettes, and their unique role. Many of you have heard the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; there are lesser known names that have had a major impact on voting rights. 

 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1800’s)

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Photo Credit: WOSU Public Media

I say then that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law (1866)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author who fought for suffrage, the abolition of slavery and civil rights. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she discovered her love for the written word early. By the age of 21, she had written her first book of poems that was later published. She ultimately published seven books of poetry, the first four of which sold 50,000 copies. After witnessing the injustice that resulted from a Maryland law prohibiting free African Americans in the North from entering the state, she dedicated her life to the anti-slavery cause. She traveled the country lecturing and writing, raising awareness of the curse upon our nation. 

She had a high profile split with suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left the American Equal Rights Association because it was supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which would allow black male suffrage before white women won the vote. 

In December 1865 Stanton stated that white women had been staunch supporters of securing “freedom for the Negro.”  However, in light of emancipation, the Negro is no longer “lowest in the scale of being,” and “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”

In 1869, the year of the split, 52 African Americans were lynched — which led Frances to the conclusion that political rights for African Americans was most urgent, followed by the rights of women. 

In 1866, Frances noted “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”

Despite the indifference and racism that Frances endured, she continued to advocate for the right to vote for all. 

 

Ida B. Wells (1900’s)

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Photo Credit: Natalie Wade/14East

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Born in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells is known as an anti-lynching activist, and a trailblazing journalist. She became frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the court system as a vehicle for ending injustice, and turned to journalism to fight racism and sexism. She founded  the Alpha Suffrage Club in her home town at the time — Chicago — in January 1913. Through her work with the Alpha Club she realized that African-American women did not necessarily have the education to participate in politics and the electoral process. Ever the agent of change, she reached out to other clubs for black women at the local, state, and national level in order to encourage more women of color to become involved in politics.

In March 1913, Ida traveled to the first suffrage parade in Washington D.C., an event organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. On the day of the parade, Wells and sixty other Black women arrived to march with the Illinois delegation, but were immediately told to march in the back, so that the Southern delegates would not become upset. Ida refused, arguing: “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” She marched along her own Illinois delegation, supported by her white co-suffragists Belle Squires and Virginia Brooks. This event received massive newspaper coverage, shedding light on the truth of African-American participation in politics.

Ida would be defined today as a community activist/organizer. Her community work, especially with the Alpha Suffrage Club, helped the women’s suffrage movement reach its success. Her work helped pass the Presidential and Municipal Bill in Illinois in June 1913, giving women over age 21 partial suffrage (the right to vote in presidential and municipal, but not state, elections). She helped register women voters and constantly encouraged women who remained doubtful of their place in the electoral process. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920, Ida  traveled throughout Chicago and Illinois emboldening African-American women to vote and participate in politics.

 

Crystal Mason (today)

Crystal
Photo Credit: Ed Pilkington/The Guardian

In 2016, Crystal Mason, who was on supervised release felony tax fraud, did what millions of people across the country did — she voted. However, she did not realize that she was not eligible to vote. When she arrived at her voting place back in November 2016, since she was not on the voter roll, Crystal received a provisional ballot. But by casting that provisional ballot, she broke a Texas state law that says residents are prohibited from voting until their sentence is complete. By definition, a sentence includes probation, parole and, in Crystal’s case, supervision. In multiple interviews, she has maintained that it was an honest mistake, and that she wasn’t even aware of the law in the first place. Additionally, since she voted using a provisional ballot, her vote was not counted in the final tally. 

In March 2019, Mason was first sentenced to five years in prison for breaking the voting law, but was released on a $20,000 bond. She had requested a new trial on the grounds the court did not consider the evidence that she did not know she was  ineligible to vote. Her request for retrial was denied in June.  Her attorney was quoted as saying “She was never told she couldn’t vote. Not by a district judge. Not by anyone at the half-way house where she lived after she got out. Not by the probation officer.” The ACLU and other civil rights groups are fighting for her freedom through the appeals process. 

Crystal’s case is symptomatic of one of the current barriers to voting– being convicted of a felony. Until Amendment 4 passed in Florida in 2018, we were one of 4 states that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions. By contrast, Maine and Vermont allow people to vote while incarcerated. Now that Senate Bill 7066 has passed, having a felony conviction does not prohibit voting — but having a felony conviction and being poor does. If you finish your sentence, you are not able to vote until you have paid all of your fines and fees. If you are unable to work due to having a felony conviction — because most employers will not hire you — how will you be able to vote? Additionally, only recently are we viewing sex trafficking victims as victims — what about those who have felony convictions as a result? What about the victims of domestic violence who lash out at their abusers, but end up incarcerated instead? Environmental factors, such as abuse and sexual assault derail the lives of so many and funnel them into the criminal justice system.  The ability to vote is critical to reintegration into society. Caring about your community and having a say in your government is directly linked to a reduction in recidivism — which results in safer communities for everyone. In one study, among individuals who had been arrested previously, 27 percent of non-voters were rearrested, compared with 12 percent of voters. When the system imposes barriers to fully re-entering society — of which voting is a key component — we are not truly at equity. 

Another issue is that of the reduction of early voting hours which affects women who are working.  Truthfully, Election Day should be a holiday so that everyone’s voice can be heard. But in the absence of this, reducing early voting hours disproportionately affects people who cannot take off work for multiple hours to wait in line to vote. The voters that are disproportionately impacted are working women of color. 

In closing, I ask that you do not look upon these issues with indifference — stand with us and continue the fight for equality. In the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.

 

 

Save Harlem: Historic Hughes Home in Danger

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Langston Hughes

A historic Harlem and American landmark is in danger due to gentrification.  African American poet Langston Hughes’ home is in danger of being sold to developers.  Several media outlets released the story this week, including EssenceNews One and CNN.  The effort to save this historic building is being led by local artists Renee Watson and the I, Too Collective.  The current owner of the space, while wishing to sell, does not want to see the home fall prey to the gentrification trend that has been occurring in Harlem — turning beautiful old spaces into coffee shops and high priced condos.  The artists wish to turn the home into an art and performance space, letting Hughes inspire yet another generation of creatives.They are working on raising $150,000 to rent the space via an internet campaign on Indiegogo.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a pioneering poet, playwright and writer, who was active during the Harlem Renaissance. He was the voice of the average African American at the time, using his pen to record pain and injustice. Hughes’ work was written for the average person, not just for the elite.  He promoted young writers and poets, giving many generations a voice as well as an outlet for their creativity.  You may learn more about him through a great piece by the Bio Channel.

One poem of his that I find timeless and inspiring is “I Look at the World”

I look at the world

By Langston Hughes

I look at the world

From awakening eyes in a black face—

And this is what I see:

This fenced-off narrow space   

Assigned to me.

 

I look then at the silly walls

Through dark eyes in a dark face—

And this is what I know:

That all these walls oppression builds

Will have to go!

 

I look at my own body   

With eyes no longer blind—

And I see that my own hands can make

The world that’s in my mind.

Then let us hurry, comrades,

The road to find.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/langston-hughes#poet

Even though his Harlem residence was given landmark status, the residence is still up for sale.

What is distressing to me is what is happening to Harlem in general.

Harlem to me as a New Yorker was the Apollo Theatre, a great place to get my hair done, to get African fabrics and hair supplies off of 125th.  It’s the mecca for African American history in the North, which is where I hail from.

 

I knew it was bad when I went during Thanksgiving of 2012.  My husband and I were meeting friends at an African restaurant in Harlem – and I noticed on my phone that the area was being referred to as “Manhattan Valley”

I said what the H? That area is straight up Harlem, why are folks renaming it?

There is only one reason – re-branding, and making the area more attractive to buyers.  In the process, erase the rich history of the Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Frederick Douglass Blvd, and make it something completely new.

A recent New York Times article detailed what I was seeing in my last trip to Harlem in 2012 — historic sites were being demolished, and long time residents were being pushed out for the sake of “progress”.

It’s insulting and upsetting.

Progress need not come with the destruction of history.

The same way we save Abraham Lincoln’s home and other treasures of American History, we must save Harlem and what made it critical to our cultural growth as a nation.

We need to save our history, because Black History is intertwined with American history.

I donated to the Indiegogo campaign — if you want to preserve American history, please do so by donating here!

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Support these artists in saving American History!! Photo from CNN.com

Judge Darrin Gayles Makes History

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It’s rare that you get a front row seat to watch history happen. Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of watching Judge Darrin Gayles become the first openly gay African American male judge on the federal bench. This event, called an investiture, was filled with the Judge’s friends, colleagues, and certainly did not disappoint.

I’m not a huge fan of labels– I’d rather call him what he is. A smart, kind, funny, person; an uber qualified judge, who gives back to the community.

But, that’s not the world we are in. We focus on labels. Knowing this, what does one do?

You do like Judge Gayles, embracing it and turning it into a positive.

In a very emotional speech, he outlined his path from humble beginnings as a son of a young widow in Peoria, Illinois to history making judge. He worked hard, maintaining full time employment and going to school. He had great role models (which is why he volunteers time to mentor young men in the community). Judge Gayles was a state and federal prosecutor, then became a state judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida (consisting of Miami Dade County).

President Obama nominated him early this year to be a federal judge to the Southern District of Florida. Judge Gayles was confirmed by the Senate 98-0, clearing the way for the historic event.

What really struck me was when he said ” there is a difference between living your life openly, and living your life publicly“. He was openly gay, and it was not really a big deal day to day in his world. But when he went through the confirmation process, his entire life became public. The fact he was a gay man seeking confirmation as a federal judge became international news.

But in that moment….he became a role model to so many more people. Judge Gayles told a story about how he was out one night, and a young woman, having recognized him, ran up to him, and tearfully told him how much his journey had inspired her to live openly in her truth.

As an attorney, I have been to dozens of these events. I have never been so moved as when Judge Gayles began to speak about his faith in God; he could barely hold back his tears as he acknowledged the blessings bestowed upon his life, including the love of his partner Raymond. “Great is Thy faithfulness” he quoted. “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me”

It was a wrap for me. Thank heavens my mascara was waterproof.

Congratulations Judge Gayles. Keep rising, keep shining, and keep reaching back to inspire others!

Kicking Off Black History Month

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Hello my dear readers!

So as you know, February is Black History Month. I will be featuring African American female attorneys, as a tribute to those who have come before me, paving the way for me to be the Resident Legal Diva!

Before I start, just wanted to put it all in perspective with this great video.

Portuguese Anti Racism Ad

Have a wonderful day, stay tuned…more to come!

M.